At its conclusion, the NFL regular season seems like a minuscule spat of time. It’s sixteen games across four months. That’s it. Yet throughout the road to the playoffs, fat segments of differentiation arise as each team tosses its 53 players around. For Deshaun Watson, the 2018 season was peculiar, one filled with twists and turns. Watson ended the year with 4,165 passing yards, 26 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions. He was sacked 62 times.
Watson started the year in Bill O’Brien’s spread shotgun passing offense. It’s an offense that has never consistently worked since O’Brien arrived in Houston, battered by blitz-heavy defensive attacks. After the Texans began the season 0-3, however, the super cool offense Houston ran in 2017 when Watson was elevated to the starting lineup was back. There was play action. There were jet sweeps. Watson was used as a runner. The ball was pushed downfield. Watson looked like 2017 Deshaun Watson, not this stranger recovering from an ACL tear.
Then Watson was blasted by the Bills and Cowboys. His lungs turned from pink to purple and deflated in his chest. He was forced to take a bus to Jacksonville to play the Jaguars. He threw too many interceptions by taking eff-it chances to force plays that weren’t there. Because of this, O’Brien reeled his quarterback back in. Against opponents that featured run-heavy offenses, Houston won close games led by a run defense that aided its offense’s scoring production. Watson turned into a wrinkled man cosplaying in a dugout during this time.
Once the Texans’ schedule no longer featured teams that had to run the ball to win, a bad secondary that was hidden for so long was exposed. The Texans played the Colts, a team that could actually throw the football. Andrew Luck threw for 399 yards. T.Y. Hilton had 199 receiving yards; the Texans couldn’t cover him, let alone Zach Pascal. Then Sam Darnold had success throwing to Robbie Anderson. Then Nick Foles put 30 points and 462 passing yards on Houston. As a result, Houston finished the final quarter of its regular season 2-2 and lost the two seed—and a bye in the first round of the NFL Playoffs—in the process
During this tough time, something funny happened. Watson was no longer stuck doing just enough. The Texans leaned on him to win games because of what he could do, instead of just with him. Without a real second wide receiver in the wake of season-ending injuries to Will Fuller and Demaryius Thomas, without Lamar Miller for two games, behind leaky pass protection, Watson completed 103 of his 141 pass attempts (73%) for 1,134 yards, 5 touchdowns, and 0 interceptions. He averaged 8 yards an attempt. He also picked up 176 rushing yards, 13 first downs on the ground, and 3 rushing touchdowns, all while Houston’s running backs averaged 2.39 yards a carry. The Texans’ defense could no longer hold teams to the 17.8 points a game they allowed during their nine game win streak. Houston needed Watson, and he delivered.
The monumental change came in the frequency Watson threw the ball downfield. During Houston’s winning streak, he played games against Washington where he threw one deep attempt. Against the Cowboys, despite that game going to overtime, and the Broncos, he threw only three attempts downfield. The most he attempted in a game was five against the Bills and Dolphins. Contrast that with his play against the Eagles, where Watson threw nine downfield passes. In the last four weeks of the regular season, Watson completed 13 of his 21 attempts (61.9%) downfield, threw 3 touchdowns, and averaged 17.9 yards an attempt.
Watson’s big throw against Philadelphia came on 3rd and 11 with 2:21 remaining. Instead of dump the ball off and play for a field goal, like Houston usually does in these situations, the Texans had to go for it trailing 29-23. The Texans have trips left and 3x0x1 personnel, with Jordan Akins as the slot receiver. The Eagles blitz four and are playing a variation of Cover Three. Rather than have the left cornerback run down the sideline, he’s pressing DeAndre Hopkins at the line of scrimmage and then sitting at the first down marker while the free safety takes over. The strong safety plays the middle of the field. Philadelphia’s worst cornerback, Rasul Douglas, is covering Vyncint Smith down the left sideline.
Smith doesn’t torch Douglas here even when Douglas turns late and has real trouble accelerating. The throw is just perfect. Watson puts it in the back of the end zone where only Smith can get it, and he gives him enough space to slide a knee down.
The pass protection on this play is perfect. Kendall Lamm and Zach Fulton correctly pass a T-E stunt. Juli’en Davenport meets Brandon Graham head on and hunkers down on his bullrush. The rear view is imperative to truly cherish this throw. The loft. The follow through. The disappearance. The landing spot.
Watson showed similar ball placement on his touchdown against the Jets to DeAndre Hopkins. This play is one of the hallmarks from last season’s super cool offense. Watson fakes the hand off to Alfred Blue and turns toward the jet sweep running DeAndre Carter. The Jets scurry into Cover Four. Against this coverage, this throw shouldn’t be made. It’s second and nine. Typically the ball is just dropped off to Carter and sets up an easier third down. This is Deshaun Watson and DeAndre Hopkins, though.
The pocket is comfy and cozy. Watson has plenty of time to hold onto the ball and stare down the out route. By doing so, he shifts the safety to the left and moves him away from Hopkins.
This puts Hopkins in a single man coverage situation. Two deep routes with four defenders deep shouldn’t allow a one-on-one situation, but Watson makes it happen. The coverage on Hopkins isn’t horrendous here. He’s neck-and-neck with Hopkins. But Watson leads his receiver to solitude. Rather than throw it wide left and follow Nuk’s path, DW4 throws it straight ahead instead.
The safety isn’t a Labrador yapping like Hopkins is. He can’t follow along, and a grotesque handshake extension keeps the safety wide. Hopkins stargazes for the touchdown.
The difference between the last month and the middle slog of the Texans’ season is necessity. Watson and Hopkins have been here the entire time. Without Will Fuller V, who is still somehow second on the team in receptions despite suffering a season-ending injury more than two months ago, and because Houston played teams it could scrape by against, O’Brien could coach like Brian Hoyer was still his quarterback and it didn’t matter. The big plays weren’t required. This season, Houston ran the ball 285 times on first down (3rd in the NFL) compared to throwing 182 passes (29th). They faced 211 third downs, the seventh most in the league. They faced an average distance of 7.27 yards on third down (14th), and converted only 37%, which tied them for 20th in the league. Instead of being aggressive, the Texans played for more manageable third downs and ended up punting the majority of the time. Over the course of sixty minutes, Houston’s offense could string together enough successful plays after the Texans’ defense put them in advantageous situations and allowed the offense to put points on the board.
Down in games, missing Lamar Miller, and having an ineffective run game, Deshaun Watson was forced to be the sole mover of the offense. Bill O’Brien did a better job managing the pass offense as the hierarchy of his team’s needs changed. Houston was running more play action on early downs to create first downs before third down.
Instead of their hot route being Alfred Blue or Ryan Griffin in the flat after the player chipped, the Texans started throwing quick comebacks, slants, and curls to DeAndre Hopkins when the blitz came.
Or they’d even laugh at the blitz, spread things out, and get the ball out quickly to DeAndre Carter.
Most importantly, the Texans threw the ball to Hopkins ALL THE TIME. Previous Houston quarterbacks who no longer exist eventually figured out it was really smart and really easy to just throw the ball to DeAndre Hopkins a lot. Deshaun Watson is doing what his predecessors did; he’s just better at it. In the last month, Hopkins has 35 catches (1st in the NFL) on 49 targets (also 1st) for 457 yards (3rd), 3 touchdowns (2nd), and 26 first downs (1st; Julio Jones is 2nd with 18). The difference between now and Hopkins’ previous miserable experiences with other Texans’ QBs is that Watson can throw with expert ball placement. Instead of just slinging a pan of Hamburger Helper to Hopkins, Watson throws it to the correct shoulder and puts the ball in a place where only the most skillful receiver in the world can get it.
When Hopkins has inside placement, throw it to the back shoulder.
When the defensive back has his back turned and is draped on the inside of half of Hopkins, throw it wide.
O’Brien also has done a tremendous job using route concepts that allow other receivers to bask in the glow of Hopkins. O’Brien does see things late, however. I don’t know if it’s because he’s standing on the sideline or what, but it does take time for O’Brien to make adjustments that should have been made a quarter before. It shouldn’t have taken until the fourth quarter to spread out the New York Jets and quick pass to beat their blitz. It shouldn’t have taken ten carries to ignore the run against the Eagles. The Colts played a lot of Cover Four and Cover Three, bracketing Hopkins. It shouldn’t have taken until the fourth quarter to rip their defense apart with a seam route.
This is a dramatic difference from the middle part of the season. Back then, Houston’s offense mainly featured the 26th ranked run offense by DVOA, just slogging along. There’s a reason for this. O’Brien calls the game differently because of the pass protection issues the team has, and because Hopkins is Houston’s only great receiving option. Watson can overcome these obstacles. Third downs should never end with a Blue dump-off to set up a punt. When that happens, of course the cornerback is going to sit back on Hopkins and allow Blue and his 6.0% broken tackle rate to make the catch.
Some of the statistics are brain-scarring. Watson was sacked 62 times this year. Houston is last in pressure rate at 38.7%. The offensive line is not good. It’s alright, though. All Deshaun needs is a nail file to break out of any situation. He plays outside the confines of his offense. Him scrambling in any direction and making plays on the move is usually a better option than waiting to see if Ryan Griffin can get open.
This 3rd and 11 conversion was life-altering. Juli’en Davenport has plenty of space to get in front of Brandon Graham, but he doesn’t, giving up his outside shoulder and getting beat by a bull rush and rip. Michael Bennett swims over the top of Zach Fulton. Chris Long loops around and takes Bennett’s place. Watson somehow breaks four tackles in the pocket, including two attempts by Michael Bennett. He then resets his feet and hits Jordan Akins while falling away from the throw. This is transcendent.
On 3rd and 1, Houston opts for the quick game to try and convert. Davenport attempts to cut the end. The idea here is to keep the end’s hands down to maintain an open throwing lane. Davenport lunges and attempts to cut the end too early instead of getting his head on the end’s hip as he’s supposed to. He face plants. Al-Quadin Muhammad has a free path to the quarterback. Watson calmly runs away and makes a throw opposite his throwing arm. He completes the pass to Jordan Thomas, who’s in between both short lateral Cover Two zones.
On 3rd and 11, squawking around the Eagles’ red zone, Philly is in Cover Four. They’re bracketing Hopkins, who’s lined up wide right. Demaryius Thomas is running a comeback that doesn’t amount to anything. Blue is covered after not making contact on his chip. The inside linebacker dropping back takes away the post. If Watson was Philip Rivers, this drive ends here. But Watson is an athlete. He runs for the first down marker, taking Malcolm Jenkins and his aggressive pursuit angle by surprise.
Even if Watson isn’t making a play on the run or scrambling for a first down, he can still turn negative plays and impending catastrophes into a neutral situation. Sometimes all he can do is push a grocery cart through a morbid gray landscape and just try to survive.
Here, nothing is open. Not even Alfred Blue is open. Nick Martin gets bullrushed into Watson by Fletcher Cox. Watson is able to elongate the tackle attempt and throws it at Blue’s feet to turn 2nd and 15 into 2nd and 10.
Even on the infrequent occasions the pass protection is great, Watson scrambling is still a viable option. Pocket quarterbacks are burdened by that great mausoleum of hope and despair. After their drop back is complete and they can’t find anyone open, they hurry up, throw the ball away or dump it off, and can’t make anything happen. Watson loves the discomfort that comes along with a long drop back. He’ll hang in the pocket and wait and wait or escape outside.
His preference is to get outside when nothing is open. This works most of the time. He can seep out in either direction and find his receiver coming back to him.
But this, and the amount of chipping Houston does, is also exactly why Watson is so susceptible to blitzes from the slot. When the blitz comes around a chip or on the opposite end from the running back, it’s a free rush. If Watson doesn’t see it pre-snap, he’s trapped unless he pulls off the absurd.
This can be discouraging at times. Watson does miss open throws downfield because he wants to leave instead of sticking around. When you’re sacked 62 times in a season, this sort of thing tends to happen. Yet it’s better for him to put his legs to use and make plays happen. It’s one of his many strengths. Some open throws are missed, but everything else more than makes up for it. Deshaun Watson is 23 years old, not 33.
Deshaun can also be manufactured as a runner, too. All those play-fakes that didn’t amount to anything in the middle part of the season mean something now. Watson can keep thje ball on a variety of zone read and option plays to pick up first downs. As mentioned earlier, the Texans’ running backs averaged only 2.39 yards a carry last month. Watson during this time period averaged 5.87 yards an attempt, had 3 rushing touchdowns, and picked up 13 first downs.
This play against the Colts a few weeks ago is a perfect example. Martin and Greg Mancz double the 2i to Anthony Walker (#50), the backside linebacker. Senio Kelemete blocks down. Davenport climbs to the second level and is supposed to block the first defender in the alley since Demaryius Thomas comes inside to earhole the linebacker. Griffin pulls as the lead blocker. The defensive end is ignored.
It’s 1st and 10. All those first down runs are good for something. Both the play-side defensive end and Darius Leonard bite on the fake, Watson follows Griffin, who gets his hands on the safety’s chest, for the first down.
Houston’s run game had been horrendous for a variety of reasons. Blue can’t break tackles. Lamm was vaporized by Jabaal Sheard. Davenport and Martin struggled getting to the second level. Fulton had been unable to generate vertical movement against the Jets and Eagles. Senio Kelemete’s hands are always a problem.
The run game needed saving, and sing Watson as a runner to swing the numbers advantage in Houston’s favor was the perfect elixir. Last weekend against the Jaguars, this was the focal point of the offense. Watson had 13 carries for 66 yards and a touchdown. This, along with throwing the ball to DeAndre Hopkins, scrapped together the 20 points they scored against Jacksonville.
Rather than pull Griffin, the Texans pull Jordan Thomas (#83). He comes in motion and enters the backfield right before the ball is snapped. The offensive line blocks like it’s an outside zone play to the right. Watson reads the backside defensive end Yannick Ngakoue (#91). Akins pulls to the right and traps the safety.
Ngakoue chases. Watson keeps. Thomas crushes the safety. Kelemete is unable to get to the second level and block Myles Jack (#44), but it doesn’t matter, Watson outruns him and cuts outside for more.
To finish off Jacksonville, Houston ran an option play in the red zone. The backside blocks down while Senio Kelemete pulls to kick out Ngakoue. The play-side guard and tackle double the defensive tackle to the backside linebacker, Myles Jack (#44). Watson is reading linebacker Telvin Smith (#50). If he chases down on him, Watson is supposed to pitch it to Alfred Blue.
Smith chases him, but the safety Jarrod Wilson (#26) is in the box and gets as wide as Blue. Instead of trusting Blue to break a tackle with a running start, Watson keeps it himself, cuts inside, ducks under Smith, and scores.
This postseason isn’t about J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, and Houston’s defense. Dominant performances from those two may contain the best passing offenses to the high 20 point range. With Houston’s secondary, against great passing attacks, Watt and Clowney can’t carry the team on their own any longer.
This postseason is all about Deshaun Watson. If he can lead an offense with usually only DeAndre Hopkins to throw to, if he can turn sacks into neutral and positive plays, if he can lift up a shoddy rushing attack to score 31 points, the Texans have a chance this postseason to go further than any Houston team has gone before. Over the last month of the regular season, Watson has shown he can do exactly that.